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Bush walked into wetlands controversy

As President Bush declares his commitment to conservation, activists say his administration is approving development proposals that endanger sensitive areas such as the Florida site he visited last week.
President Bush, joined by his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and other officials, visited the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Naples, Fla., last Friday.Susan Walsh / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

At the same time President Bush is declaring his commitment to conservation, environmentalists say his administration is approving development proposals that endanger sensitive areas such as southwest Florida’s Rookery Bay, where the president traveled last week to defend his record.

Environmental groups oppose the proposed Winding Cypress development, saying its 2,300 homes and golf course would destroy wetlands because the project is at the headwaters of the bay. The developer is one of the area’s most prominent business families, the Colliers. The county that encompasses Naples bears the family name.

“If they build this project, the Bush administration will be responsible for destroying critical wetlands and creating more urban runoff pollution into Rookery Bay,” said Frank Jackalone, the Sierra Club’s Florida staff director.

Developers say they have gone to great lengths to reduce sharply or eliminate damaging effects on wetlands in Collier and Lee counties from projects like Winding Cypress.

In a well-to-do region, Winding Cypress is just one illustration of growth colliding with environmental concerns.

Housing boom in county
Collier County is the second-hottest housing market in the nation, U.S. Housing markets magazine said late last year. Adjoining Lee County was No. 1, based on an index comparing the number of home-building permits with population.

The housing activity is taking place in a state, Florida, where the longtime political issue of wetlands protection is spilling over into the presidential campaign.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has highlighted a proposed administration rule change — since dropped — that would have eliminated protection for a number of wetlands and intermittent streams.

On Earth Day last Thursday, Bush traveled to Maine and promised to restore or protect up to 3 million acres of wetlands in the next five years. He gave a repeat performance Friday at Rookery Bay, telling supporters, “I know there’s a lot of politics when it comes to the environment, but what I like to do is focus on ... results.”

Reversing its early opposition to Winding Cypress, the Environmental Protection Agency last year rejected a request by environmental groups to stop it. The agency refused to veto permits that allow development although some wetlands will be destroyed.

The federal Clean Water Act empowers the EPA to stop projects near important wetlands. The agency has said it scrutinizes proposed developments carefully, even though it rarely has invoked its veto authority in 25 years.

While allowing Winding Cypress to continue, the EPA says it is keeping its options open on eight other proposed developments in Collier and Lee counties.

EPA controversy in Florida
Environmental groups, which claim a sharp tilt in favor of developers, cite as Exhibit A the case of EPA scientist Bruce Boler. Environmentalists say he paid the price for aggressively objecting to development in southwest Florida; Boler has said he was forced out of his job. The EPA says it was Boler’s decision to leave; he now works at Everglades National Park in Florida.

The Naples Daily News reported that officials of the Army Corps of Engineers kept Boler from some permitting meetings when his concerns about wetlands destruction and water quality were at odds with developers’ intentions.

The Corps, the primary permitting agency around federally protected waterways, says the dialogue between Boler and the agency was “professional” and that EPA comments are “fully considered in our permitting decisions.”

The EPA sets the standards under which the Corps must review permits, has the authority to comment on permit applications and has veto power.

Environmentalists say it’s time for the president to back up his words with action.

“The Bush administration has failed to use the power it has to protect the environment and the president should tell the EPA to put a halt to destruction of wetlands in southwest Florida,” the Sierra Club’s Jackalone said.